San Francisco

Tony Labat

New Langton Arts

It would prove useful to consider why and how Tony Labat wasn’t included in RoseLee Goldberg’s live art festival PERFORMA ’05, given that this sharp retrospective closed just weeks before that event kicked off in New York. Labat (along with Chris Burden and Dan Graham, Lucille Ball and Ann Magnuson, Richard Pryor and Johnny Knoxville) should be a key figure in any history of artists using action to negotiate the role of media (television and video, especially) in constructing the various, often ephemeral, aesthetic, sexual, and political narratives producing and produced by bodies or their absence. Memory loss only partly explains it.

In 1978, while still an undergraduate at the San Francisco Art Institute, Labat made his first proposal to New Langton Arts, a local alternative space founded thirty years ago. As Susan Miller, editor of the cogent catalogue accompanying the show, writes: “Knowing full well the requirements of the review and selection process, he had a bouquet of a dozen roses delivered to the panel instead of the usual packet of materials. Inscribed on the attached note card was a simple phrase, ‘Trust me.’ With this small and provocative action, Labat sidestepped (possibly even derailed) standard review procedure . . . In the end, the roses were well received and the artist was awarded an exhibition.” Three other early multifanged actions were similarly crucial: his gonged appearance (with Bruce Pollack) on The Gong Show in 1978; his drive-by kidnapping of artist-turned-politician Lowell Darling (Kidnap Attempt, 1978); and his own little bravura ring cycle, a critique, in part, of purist art sensibilities for which Labat turned his studio into a training facility (Terminal Gym, 1980–81). After months of training, he duked it out at Kezar Pavilion with rival artist Tom Chapman in a regulation boxing match, with burlesque legend Carol Doda as the round-count-card girl (Fight, 1981). The complex trajectories that intersect in these works include trust and mistrust, male camaraderie and aggression, a blurring of aesthetic and political risk-taking, as well as the sheer physicality of identity. The tape of Gong Show, 1978, and the complex local-news-cum-“documentary” video of Fight, P.O.V. (Point of View), 1981, were paired as part of a screening of much of the best of Labat’s nearly three decades of video work.

The head shot that Labat used to publicize Fight wasn’t a photograph but a messy commisioned portrait painting by Katherine Sherwood, a shrewd and funny critique of performance’s reliance on photographic documentation and other “relics,” a tendency that this show perpetuated but tempered with Labat’s own paintings and “Body Drawings,” 1977, a series of moving and amusing drawings with typewritten descriptions. Much of the early video “documentation” seen here includes news breaks and commercials. These interruptions become thematized in Labat’s economical yet choreographed editing techniques, packing a metaphorical punch. In many of the later videos, the disruption goes even further, producing counternarratives that break apart any sense of linearity, identity, or identification (i.e., Kikiriki, 1983; Mayami: Between Cut and Action, 1986). One could read Labat’s oeuvre as one of the most complex explorations ever attempted of the schizoid relations between Cuba, his birthplace, and the US, where he immigrated at age fifteen.

Of course, by quickly describing these early works, most executed over twenty-five years ago, I have limited myself to recounting foundational sites of Labat’s artistic energy in order to reckon with his ongoing critique of “performance”—its dependence on photographic documentation and search for original sites and actions—rather than interrogating how he has built upon such concerns in his later work. The flowers that Labat sent in lieu of a portfolio years ago might be a starting point for such interrogation: The red roses on a pedestal at the exhibition’s entrance were plastic. While I didn’t chalk the alteration up to any kind of embitterment, I also didn’t read it as meaningless. In fact, it seemed a rather provocative commentary on the current state of the performative.

Bruce Hainley